Incivisme: Or some thoughts on Dr. Pinker, Burkina, and my research here

There’s been a lot of talk about “incivisme”, or lack of a sense of civic duty, in Burkina these days. Often, they are talking about corruption or the infamous kogl-wéogo phenomenon, but the example most often cited is the irrepressible habit of running red lights. Burkinabè cannot be dissuaded from running lights, even by mocking signs:

Brule le feu 640

This sign is found at a stoplight a few hundred meters from my house. It is a sort of double pun in French. The literal translation is “only sheep burn the fire”. “Bruler le feu” is an idiomatic expression for running a red light. And when cooking mutton over an open fire, the fat notoriously drips down on the coals and can cause some nice kitchen fires (and overcooked mutton). People who blindly follow the leader are “moutons” or sheep in French as in English. And the animal pictured is not a sheep but a pig, as in English a symbol of selfishness. And the bicyclist in the middle of the picture is, in fact, running the light, in the face of a motorcyclist turning from the left. I’m always careful going through a green light because I assume somebody is trying to run it from the other direction.

Interesting, though, that the example of “incivisme” that everybody seizes on is actually a pretty innocuous one – though Burkina Faso, for all that there are very few cars here, has a horrifyingly high rate of traffic mortality. Is this further evidence of the essentially peaceful nature of Burkinabè as compared with their more violent neighbors? Or is it, as Mr. Pinker’s book, reviewed last week, seems to suggest, just part of what he called the “New Peace”? Is the difference between Burkina in 2014-15 and Cote d’Ivoire in 2002-2010 the result of some fundamental difference in culture or politics between two countries that are otherwise remarkably similar, or is it just a matter of the passage of a decade in a rapidly evolving world historical transition?

If the latter, my prospective book is in a little trouble. The argument in favor goes something like this: African and other developing world politics was especially violent in the 1990s because the old form of control, the Cold War, was over and no new form of control had yet evolved. As the terrible wars of the 1990s consumed various parts of Africa, South, and Southeast Asia, though, new forms of control evolved. Specifically, in the West African context, the old method of control was the presence of French Foreign Legion and Parachutiste Coloniaux bases in various countries combined with a more or less open-ended security commitment to preserve the governments of French-speaking countries in power come what may. However, French intervention in Rwanda in the 90s essentially put an end to this French habit. Opération Turquoise saw French troops take control of the southwestern third of the country as the Rwandan Patriotic Front rebels drove their genocidal Interahamwe opponents from the capital, Kigali. The Interahamwe were able to regroup in the Zone Turquoise, continue their genocide for another couple of months, and then make an orderly evacuation to the former Zaire, where they continued to persecute the local Tutsi population. France looked to the world as if it was a defender and enabler of genocide, and the survival of the former government forces in the refugee camps in Zaire led at last to the Rwandan invasion of Zaire and a dramatic expansion of the war that has subsequently taken tens of thousands of lives by Dr. Pinker’s quite conservative estimate. France pretty much decided at that point that they were no longer interested in protecting African dictators from their people (or overthrowing the odd dictator who wouldn’t toe the line, like Burkina’s Thomas Sankara). In any case, the French never offered security guarantees to English-speaking African countries, and it was in Anglophone West Africa where the new model of peace making took hold.

The civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s were justly infamous for atrocities and wanton destruction of the fruits of decades of development work. The movie Blood Diamond is Hollywood’s version of the Sierra Leone Civil War, and though exaggerated, the picture of chaos and destruction is not too overwrought. In both places, the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, created a peace enforcement force to try to impose a cease-fire and political solution to the conflicts. Guinean, Nigerian, Senegalese, and other local armies sent contingents, under rules of engagement significantly more robust than any UN peace keeping force enjoyed. In both cases, ECOWAS was originally unsuccessful at imposing a solution, and suffered several embarrassing defeats at the hands of rebel forces. However, with support from Britain (in Sierra Leone), the US (in Liberia) and South Africa (in both places but especially Sierra Leone), both civil wars were brought to a close and reasonably democratic and honest government replaced chaos and corruption. In Cote d’Ivoire in 2002-2004 and again in 2011, political crises degenerated into open warfare. In both cases, the country was split along regional/ethnic lines, with northerners fighting southerners. France intervened in both of these conflicts, but as part of a larger international effort and not simply to restore order under a dictatorship. Ultimately, French and other international troops helped put the winner of the 2010 presidential elections into power and arrested former president Gbagbo. An increasing role for the United States, including the creation of an Africa Command in the US military, means that the US is more prepared to intervene and provide security. The Americans are no longer prepared to leave Africa to its own devices or to leave the policing of the continent to the former colonial masters, France and the UK.

In this regard, the other day I was down at the Embassy for the English conversation hour at the library. Lo and behold, the library was full of nice clean-cut young Americans who turned out to be ROTC cadets from all over the country. The military has a Cultural Understanding and Language Program where young officers are sent to faraway places to get some experience and understanding of their culture. Africa is not ignored; there were 15 or so folks in this group and in a month or so I understand another group will be coming. Thirty years ago, I don’t think it would have crossed the mind of a US military planner that new officers should have some experience in Africa before commissioning. In those days, maybe tops there were a few hundred US military personnel in the whole continent, mostly in Defense Attaché Offices and as Marine Security Guards in embassies. Now, there are thousands, working with West African militaries to combat Boko Haram and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, with East Africans against terrorists in Somalia, Kenya, and Yemen, in Central Africa to keep the peace in South Sudan and hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army, in North Africa supporting fragile pro-western governments there, and throughout building the capacity of African militaries to defend themselves. There was a big exercise here a month or so ago, with Special Forces troops training regional military and gendarmerie troops in hostage rescue and counter-guerrilla operations. Burkina Faso’s military has been especially active in peacekeeping and anti-terrorist activities in the region.

The result of all this has been a remarkable decrease in violence around the region. You wouldn’t think so from the news coverage of terrorist attacks like the one here January 15th, and of the “bring back our girls” movement, but the struggle against AQIM and Boko Haram, though difficult, has not been nearly as bloody as those wars of the 1990s and 2000s. During the Second Ivorian Civil War, the forces of (current president) Alassane Ouattara killed at least 3000 people in one town alone. Meanwhile, youth militias supporting president Gbagbo systematically targeted Burkinabè and northerners living in Abidjan leaving the streets littered with bodies night after night. And of course there are those infamous hand-chopping Sierra Leonean and Liberian rebels.

But. None of this has been necessary in Burkina. There has been no political violence and darn little terrorism here over the last twenty years, the period of all that bloodletting in neighboring countries. It is argued (by his opponents) that Blaise Compaoré’s achievement was to export violence all over the region by accommodating rebel groups and terrorists. LIberian rebel leader Charles Taylor lived a few blocks from here in the 1980s, before his hand-chopping days, in a nice house that I pass quite regularly. Even after Compaoré’s departure, however, no matter how much Burkinabè complain about kogl-wéogo, insolent students in rural high schools trashing their teachers’ houses, or folks who run red lights, the level of bloodshed has been pretty low. Except at urban intersections.

I’m getting on a plane in a couple of hours to go grade AP exams in Salt Lake City. Since the AP folks don’t want us to say much about the grading on social media, to avoid giving away strategic information to students, I probably won’t have much to say while I’m there. I’ll be back here the 11th for another couple of weeks, hoping to get outside of Ouaga on a couple trips and see some more of the country, so hopefully I’ll have a few more interesting things to say before I finally leave the end of June.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s